Conrad Zero, esteemed author of all thinks dark and ominous, was kind enough to tag me for a bit of writing process discussion. Process is a pretty idiosyncratic thing, and I doubt that what works for me will necessarily work for anybody else, but sometimes there are useful tidbits hiding in other peoples’ processes. Plus, I thought it would be fun to play. So, here goes:
What am I working on?
My novel, Premonitions, comes out in July. It’s the first of three books I have under contract, so as you can imagine, the next two books have my complete attention at this point. I have a draft of the second and I’m writing the third. I’m hoping to get a draft of the third finished and then go back and do edits on the second. Yay continuity!
This is the first series I’ve worked on, so I’m still getting my head wrapped around how that should work. I’m only contracted for three books, so I’m trying to have at least some of the main arc wrapped up by the end of book three, with plenty of hooks built in to hang further books on. We’ll see how that goes…
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
A lot of urban fantasy is written in an instantly identifiable snarky first person point of view, derived from old noir stock. That works great, but it doesn’t work all that well for me with the latest batch of stories I’m trying to tell. That first person POV ties you very closely to one character, and it places a LOT of demands on that character. All the events of the story, which is usually wildly multi-threaded, have to be filtered through the experience of one central character. In the case of Premonitions and its sequels, there are a lot of characters, a lot of agendas, and as a result, a lot of perspectives. I felt like many of those needed to be represented in order to underscore the effects of the story on the individual actors. I find it particularly useful to look at things through the eyes of the antagonist. It helps me to humanize them, and it tends to make their actions less generically evil.
Why do I write what I do?
My wife once said that every book on my shelf has “Darkness,” “the Devil,” “Evil,” or something of the kind in its title. I laughed, and then I looked at the shelf again, and I stopped laughing. Yeah, there’s the fiction, which is pretty loaded up on dark themes, but it was the nonfiction that surprised me. There was a textbook about the problem of evil in religious philosophy. The Lucifer Effect, Philip Zimbardo’s book on the Stanford Prison Experiment. Black Mass, a book about Whitey Bulger and the F.B.I.’s informant program gone horribly wrong. Lots more.
My wife, it turned out, had neatly put her finger on a fascination that I hadn’t really been consciously aware of myself. People do bad things. People do convenient things that turn out to have horrible consequences. Moreover, we’ve spent centuries looking for an explanation. Is it innate? Is it purely a result of circumstance? A consequence of free will (and holy shit there’s a can of worms there, without even tackling religious implications—free will alone is a dubious enough proposition)?
Nearly all my writing ends up focused on these themes. The nice thing about dark fantasy and horror, and all the works that wander back and forth across the blurry lines that attempt to circumscribe them, is that the supernatural can quite readily be used as a metaphor but it’s also a fantastic amplifier. Extreme situations amplify character reactions, helping us look for the spot where a flaw turns into a full-blown crack.
How does my writing process work?
I used to just write and see what came out. For some writers, that works great. For me, it’s a guaranteed clusterfuck as my plot threads end up wandering all over the place and I wind up with an un-end-able story. It’s a miserable experience to write seventy thousand words only to realize there is no possible way to end the resulting mess in a way that makes sense. Then you’re left with poor options–overhaul it completely or trash the whole thing. These days I swear by outlines, though I wouldn’t say I stick to them particularly well.
My whole “process,” such as it is, looks like this:
Step 0: Research like mad. If I’m focusing on something I’m not that familiar with, I need to get familiar enough to be convincing. I don’t fuck around here—I read everything I can get my hands on, clean out the relevant section in the bookstore, watch documentaries, the whole works. I miss a lot—of course—but some of it takes. An editor once told me something like, “If you faked the ‘daily life of a Mafia guy’ bits in this book, you faked them really well.” Best research compliment ever, though the “if” did lead me to wonder if she thought I might be an ex-mobster.
Step 1: Figure out the main arc of the book. If I can write that down in a single paragraph or even just keep it in mind, that’s good enough.
Step 2: Write the outline. For whatever reason, my chapters tend to be about 3,000 words on average (possibly that’s as long as my attention span can maintain a single arc), so I know from the outset that, for a typical novel, I need 30-35 chapters. At this point, the outline is little more than a list of 30-35 important things that happen, in roughly chronological order. It is imperative that I can see an ending from here.
Step 3: Start writing the book. I like to write a thousand words a day when I’m in the throes of novel writing, but it never comes evenly. Vicissitudes of life and all that.
Step 4: Come to a premature screeching halt. It usually takes 15,000 to 30,000 words for the book to go off the rails and depart wildly from the outline. “No outline survives contact with the characters,” I often say, and it has been true for every book I’ve written. By the 30,000 word mark, I’ve developed a clear idea of the characters, and I notice that the rest of the outline is a hopeless mismatch for them—every time. So I stall out at this point for a week or more while I contemplate the rest of the book, what I’m trying to do with it, and how the characters fit together.
Step 5: Rewrite the remainder of the outline.
Step 6: Resume writing.
Step 7: Come to second premature screeching halt. This is at about the 70,000 word mark, when I realize the ending is fucked. It’s less fucked than it would have been had I not had an outline, since the arc has at least been bending in that direction, but it’s still fucked. So now I stew on that for a while.
Step 8: Have epiphany, and finally understand how everything fits together. More or less. Write in a blue-white blazing frenzy until I reach the end.
Step 9: Go back and fix the most egregious problems.
Step 10: Get the book out of my sight. Send it to trusted readers and start writing something else. I really can’t stress how important this is. Sometimes I overrate the book, and getting my mind clear helps me focus on its flaws. Sometimes, having just finished struggling with it, I have reached the opinion that it’s total shit. Getting my mind clear helps me balance that, too.
Step 11: Several weeks (or months, if possible) later, dust the manuscript off. Read it again. Read the feedback from my trusted readers.
Step 12: Fix it.
Step 13: Call it done.
Step 14. Start over with the next book.
So that’s it from me. However, I’ve tagged Martyn V. Halm and J.H. Sked, a couple of great authors I know, to share their own thoughts on writing process. Posts from them should be up on their individual blogs in the next week or so. A little more info on both authors below:
Martyn V. Halm lives in Amsterdam, with his wife Maaike, two children, two cats, and countless imaginary characters vying for attention.
Writing realistic crime fiction is hard work. Martyn is a stickler for verisimilitude in fiction, even if that requires learning new skills. When your protagonist is a seasoned killer, research can take you right up to Nietzsche’s abyss. Luckily, things get easier after the first kill…
Martyn always enjoyed stories about assassins, but his opinion on assassins differed from the books he read. Since most fictional assassins are antagonists, they are often warped individuals, with freaky childhoods. However, Martyn has come across mercenaries (basically the same field), who are pretty regular people. Sure, their view of the world differs from ordinary citizens, but they’re not ‘warped’. This made him want to write about an assassin who has no deep-seated frustration or abused childhood, but who just realised that killing was what she was good at and who had the appropriate world view and lack of conscience to pull it off.
Martyn’s blog can be found here: https://amsterdamassassin.wordpress.com/
J. H. Sked lives in London, England, with several hundred books and a long-suffering flatmate. When not writing, she reads, paints, works at a day job and is conducting a losing war with pigeons. Every now and then she finds time to sleep.
She is the author of WolfSong and BloodMoon (Tales from the Crescent), and the Blue Moon Detectives series.
Check out her blog here: http://jhsked.blogspot.com/